Late one spring evening, as I was clearing a spot for my soon-to-be bee yard, out past the garden, in a spot sheltered on the west by a large caragana bush, with a good aspect for getting the morning sun to warm and wake my bee hives, I noticed a large bumble bee land in the grass where I had just cleared away some small alders. It buzzed around in the grass and then disappeared. "Ha," I thought, "A bee nest! This will be a perfect spot for my bee yard." I felt a surge of optimism.
Well, as I mentioned in my last post, my honey bee enterprise didn't do so well, but I was left with a renewed appreciation and curiosity about all the other pollinators that show up in my garden. And as I watched my honey bees go about their work I started noticing several differences between them and the local bumble bees.
That bumble bee that was still flying out on a cool spring evening was my first clue to one difference. Local bumble bees can tolerate much lower temperatures than the honey bees which were originally imported from Europe. Once my honey bee colonies were in place, I'd get up in the morning, take a coffee and a folding chair and go down to the bee yard to watch the activity. Well, there'd be a few sluggish guard bees on duty, and some "cleansing" flights from some of the workers, but not much was happening in the cool of the morning. Meanwhile, it looked like the bumble bees were already well into their work day visiting various wild flowers or whatever was blooming in the flower beds. I recalled one spring when the snow had melted off one of my sunnier flower beds. The soil had warmed up just enough for me to get at some of the weeds and start cleaning up dead plants from the previous year. I was down on the ground on my kneeling pad, one hand resting on the grass, a trowel in the other, when I felt something buzzing against the palm of the hand resting on the grass. I pulled my hand away, and a large Tricoloured bumble bee wriggled out of the grass, shook itself a bit and flew off. To my amazement, this happened two more times as I worked my way along the flower bed. This would have been late April, or early May.
I've since learned that I was witnessing, and feeling, the emergence of new queens. Bumble bee queens who have mated the previous year are the only individuals of their species who survive the winter. The Tricolour (Bombus ternarius) queens hibernate in loose soil or leaf litter. So the long grass and other mess around that flower bed was a perfect spot for them to stay safe over the long winter.
A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to attend a talk and then a field trip lead by Victoria MacPhail, a York University PhD student, who had come to Northwestern Ontario to study firsthand the local bumble bees and to spread the word about Bumble Bee Watch, a citizen science project she is involved with. Here's a recent article describing her work.
Victoria was also here to meet and work with one of Bumble Bee Watch's most dedicated citizen scientists, Anne Puddicombe. Anne is a bumble bee enthusiast from Dryden and has posted over 500 bumble bee profiles on Bumble Bee Watch and, according to the Xerxes Society, she's A Bumble Bee Watch star.
The field trip involved capturing bumble bees and watching as Victoria identified them, species and sometimes even gender.
I was hooked, and signed up on Bumble Bee Watch. Below are some of my pictures from that first summer that have been identified by the Bumble Bee Watch experts (one of whom is Victoria). When I gathered them here I noticed that the majority were males. Of course, this was August, late summer, when the queens have started laying unfertilized eggs. Fertilized eggs become female workers or new queens. Unfertilized eggs become male drones. Once they are able to fly, the drones circuit fly in a specific area and deposit pheromone on prominent places such as tree trunks, rocks, posts, and -- who knows -- my little green gargoyle. They wait for a new queen to come by, hop on her back and, once they drop to the ground, complete the act they were raised for. I guess that's why I was able to photograph so many hanging around my garden.
This summer I took a lot more photos and used this as an excuse to get some more fancy lenses for my camera. I've started uploading some of them to the Bumble Bee Watch site but a lot more to go, though I don't think I'll ever come close to Ann's numbers.
A sneaky, and, I think quite handsome, Yellow-banded male. B. terricola. Notice the fine yellow moustache. This fellow was feeding on nearby Veronica flowers but would move away and sit on this Peony leaf whenever I got close with my camera. I wonder what I looked like to him through those compound eyes? Probably like some strange glassy-eyed cyclops.
Three good views of a Confusing Bumble Bee (yes, that is really their common name!) male (B. perplexus). This is the preferred set of images for uploading to Bumble Bee Watch, although they can sometimes confirm an identification with one blurry view.
A male Half-black (B. vegans). This time on a Hollyhock. Notice all the pollen granules sticking to its wings and legs. I watched another bee spend at least 15 minutes sitting on a fence post, working to clean itself of all these sticky bits. I hope the nectar it got from the Hollyhock more than made up for this expenditure of energy.
At last, a female worker! This one is a Half-black (B. vagans).
Here are the two, side by side. The male Half-black on the left and the female worker on the right.
A male Yellow-banded (B. terricola), enjoying some Pearly Everlasts. This was taken near the Kama Ridge east of Nipigon in a cut-over area in August. This is one of the specimens they were able to identify just from this one blurry image.
A male Tricolour (B. ternarius). Also near the Kama Ridge. Tricoloured bumble bees are the most common in our area.
I'm Elizabeth Pszczolko, a writer living in the woods outside Thunder Bay, Ontario. As a child, I used to keep scrapbooks of nature stuff - drawings, musings, poems. This is my grown up (I use the term loosely) version of those long lost works. For more on what inspires this blog, please see the About page.